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Dale Lucas Interview – Friendly Fire

Dale LucasDale Lucas, film reviewer and indie fantasy author, had his first Big Five debut last year, with First Watch, first book in The Fifth Ward series. The book came out to much acclaim and its sequel, Friendly Fire, is out this week! Today we are lucky enough to have the author himself here to tell us more about the series and what may await our heroes in future stories.

So without further ado, on with the interview!

In a year of great debuts from Orbit, First Watch is definitely one of the most unique. How did you come up with the concept of a police procedural in an epic fantasy world?

When I first came up with the idea that would become The Fifth Ward, I had just moved back to Florida from California and given up any hope of trying to sell a screenplay and make a living as a writer that way. In the years prior to my return, I’d been brainstorming ways to revitalize the classic buddy cop story, because Hollywood never seemed to tire of cop stories and the buddy form was one that pretty much defined action cinema when I was a kid. One day, sitting in my cubicle at work and thinking about things I’d rather be doing, my brain conjured an image of the spiraling streets of Tolkien’s Minas Tirith at night, and a couple of dudes walking those streets as night-watchmen with lanterns. Two things I loved collided–the buddy cop story and secondary-world fantasy–and I was off to the races.

First Watch (cover)The decision to make one human and one dwarf followed almost immediately, as did the decision to use the classic fantasy races instead of creating new ones (because I figured that would orient those in the audience who weren’t bone-deep fantasy geeks). Thanks to the popularity of the LOTR films and Warcraft, normal people now know what an elf, a dwarf and an orc are, in fantasy terms–so if I was going to tell a different, more grounded sort of fantasy story, it seemed sensible to people it with tropes people had already encountered–but of course, reimagined, so that they wouldn’t always be what we expected them to be.

I also made the decision pretty early on that the stories needed to be small–at least in fantasy terms. No Dark Lords, no world-changing magic rings, no massive armies of all-evil orcs. It had to be about everyday life in a fantastic world–and the everyday sins that attended such a world–not the big, sprawling epic stuff that other writers had already done, or were doing, better. Once those parameters presented themselves, the rest of it sort of fell into place. I spent a month or two brainstorming and hastily worldbuilding, and then jumped into the first draft within 90 days of first getting the idea. For me, that’s almost unheard-of.

Rem and Torval are fantastic characters and the heart of the novel is really their relationship. What were some of the influences that helped bring this mismatched pair together?

Well, if it’s a buddy cop story, you need a mismatched pair. If we take the example of Lethal Weapon, we’ve got the deadly loose cannon loner and the cautious family man. My first thought was: don’t do that. So I created a head-breaking tough guy who’s also a loving family man, and a mysterious loner who’s really just trying to find a place to belong in the world. The dynamic is one I’m familiar with, because I tend to be a quiet, introverted, cautious sort, yet many of my closest friends are boisterous and combative. There was also the inherent challenge of trying to make sure my quiet guy, Rem, was just as interesting—and capable—as my two-fisted headbreaker, the dwarf Torval. I’m Rem’s case, I wanted a guy who was a seeker, looking for purpose and a place in the world, but not a foolish, dewy-eyed greenhorn. Rem may not always understand how Yenara, as a city, works, but he’s not a wide-eyed innocent or callow youth, either.

Have you read Terry Pratchett’s City Watch series and if so would you cite them as an inspiration?

Friendly Fire (cover)When I get a new idea, I go searching for things that may be similar, to make sure my approach is one the world might actually need (or that at least isn’t a pale re-tread). Those searches were where I discovered Pratchett’s Night Watch series. I’m familiar with Pratchett by reputation and recommendation, but I’ve never read any of his work. I may fix that someday, but generally, I’m just not into overtly satirical or comedic fantasy. That’s not a swipe, either—clearly Pratchett was a genius whose enormous body of work inspires millions of readers. It’s just not my bag. Suffice to say, I was satisfied that his take and my take would be dissimilar enough to justify pushing on.

Who was your favorite character to write and do you see yourself in any of the central characters in the novel?

As I said above, Rem is probably the most like me, but Torval’s the most fun to write. There’s basically is no internal monologue or guile in that guy; it’s full steam ahead, if you think it, say it, if there’s a problem, smash it…and yet, he’s got a family that he’s quite devoted to. I love squaring those two aspects of Torval–the head breaker and the doting father. Another key factor that my heroes share is the fact that they’re both exiles, of a sort: neither felt like they belonged to the environments they were born into, so they’ve gone off into the world to make something new for themselves. That sense of not being from where you’re from is one that’s stirred in me since I was a kid, so I wanted heroes that embodied the quest.

When did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you break into the business?

I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was roughly 5 or 6. My natural storytelling inclinations were encouraged by the realization that the books and comics I read, the movies and TV shows I watched, were all written by people, real people who got paid for doing it. From that point on, I basically said, “Yeah, that’s what I’d like to do.” I’ve basically held to that for 38 years (with brief adjunct considerations, like being an archeologist or a special effects artist or a film writer/director).

I broke by hard-headed persistence. I’ve been writing seriously, with the intent of publication, since about 1996. I shopped my first novel in 2001. Doc Voodoo: Aces & Eights was published by a small press in 2011. And now, The Fifth Ward: First Watch, my major imprint debut, finally arrived in 2017. Roughly 20 years from my first professional forays until my first Big Five sale. In that time, I’ve written a total of six novels (plus half of another that was abandoned, plus dozens of false starts). Bottom line: you break in by writing a lot, developing both a voice and a well-honed shit detector, by getting it out there, and by never giving up. There is no other way.

I’m a huge fan of your small press published Doc Voodoo series. Can you talk a bit about that series for those that want to read more of your work?

Aces & Eights (cover)That series was born in 2007, out of frustration. I’d just gone through a divorce and moved to LA. The book I was working on was stalled. I was feeling lonely and blocked and directionless. I spent a lot of my free time in bookstores (RIP Borders–I loved you dearly), and at that time there just seemed to be a lot of old pulp stuff screaming at me. I saw big displays of Doc Savage and Shadow reprints; Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and Paul Malmont’s The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril both blew me away; and I was suddenly taken with this sense of kinship. I’d grown up with Star Wars and Marvel Comics and Ace Paperbacks, but those were all the descendants of the old pulps. I did some reading about the writers themselves–especially Lester Dent and Walter Gibson–and was absolutely floored by the enormity of their output. Usually 100,000 words a month or more! So, I just started thinking, “Maybe that’s how I get out of this slump…I jump into something and push through, hard and fast, and race to the end. Worry about quality later–just have fun.”

If it was gonna be pulp, it had to be pulp era–so that meant Prohibition; if I was gonna do a pulp hero, he was gonna be in the Dark Avenger mode, because that’s how I roll. I thought an African-American hero who used voodoo would be pretty cool, because that’s the sort of character who would’ve been reduced to a stereotype and made a cardboard villain in the old pulps. And if it was gonna be Prohibition-era and involve a black hero deploying voodoo, it had to be in Harlem during the Harlem Renaissance, because what a perfect time and place to represent black hopes and dreams colliding with white America’s oppressive expectations. I didn’t finish the book as quickly as I’d hoped, but it did what it was supposed to do: pulled me out of a slump, got my juices flowing again, and gave me something new I could be proud of.

It ended up being published in the small press because by the time it was done, I was shopping another book around, and Doc was just sitting in a drawer. A friend of mine who’d read it in draft reached out and told me he was starting a small press, and wondered if I’d be amenable to Doc Voodoo being the first title. And the rest, as they say, is history…

The challenges of marketing a small press title are considerable, and the book (and its sequel) hasn’t sold a monstrous number of copies–but at least 99% of the feedback I get from it is positive. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters.

When you aren’t writing, what takes up most of your time?

When not writing, or attending to the duties of my day job, I’m usually devouring movies and TV, reading, brainstorming and developing new ideas, cooking in or eating out (my fiancé and I are hardcore foodies). I love traveling, too–been all over the world, but still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of all the cool things there are to see and do.

Oh, and music. I play guitar, badly, but I also have an enormous music collection, ranging all over the place, Beatles to Bartok, Siouxsie and the Banshees to Sinatra. One of the first things I do when I start a new project is to create a playlist full of the right mood music. As the writing progresses and the story comes into focus, the playlist gradually gets whittled down to a proper, structured soundtrack.

Have you read any good fantasy lately and if so, any recommendations?

Right Behind You (cover)Most of my reading in the past year has been the work of my comrades in Orbit’s Class of 2017. Nick Eames’ Kings of the Wyld is absolutely equal to all the hype and love it’s receiving; Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw was a beautiful book with stellar prose and incredible characters; Melissa Caruso’s The Tethered Mage, which has one of the coolest magical systems I’ve ever encountered; and I just finished RJ Barker’s Age of Assassins, which probably became my instant favorite out of a pretty outstanding slate. It’s not just the great story, or the awesome worldbuilding, or the fantastic characters–RJ is a brilliant line-by-line writer. A writer’s writer.

I also managed to squeeze in Jon Holins’ Fool’s Gold back in the summer, which was a blast.

And my to-read pile is still taller than I am…

I’m super stoked for the second book in the 5th Ward series? Can you tell us a bit about book two without giving too much away?

Book two, titled Friendly Fire, picks up about 6 months after Rem joined the wardwatch in First Watch. It’s all about festering social tensions in Yenara between different factions and how those tensions start to manifest as bloody violence and even the employ of black magic. It’s a much larger book, in the sense that there are a few more POV characters, and while Rem is front-and-center in the action, the story tells us more about Torval–his past, his present, his family, and his estrangement from his own people.

This time out, I wanted to tell a story that was a little bigger and broader, and that, likewise, dealt with more thorny and personal issues for the characters. I also wanted to make it clear, by going in a slightly different direction from First Watch, that I want each of these books to be just a little different from the last, in terms of both subject and tone. I’m really excited to see how readers respond to a deeper dive into Yenara’s underbelly, and into the minds and hearts of our heroes.

Despite often playing it relatively straight and clearly not satirical there are many laugh out loud moments in the book. Did you set out to write a funny book, or is life just funny?

I’ve tried to write straight comedy before, and I’m fairly horrible at it. Also, there’s the fact that, when it comes to fantasy, I prefer humor to comedy. I remember reading the distinction somewhere that humor is something funny emerging naturally out of a situation, whereas comedy is a specific art form, where every incident and action is designed to be funny and elicit laughs (or at least some sense of comedic irony). My preferences and abilities are definitely more in the ‘humor’ camp. And that’s for precisely the reason you point out: life is funny, even when it’s painful, ugly and tragic. My aim was always to tell a story that didn’t shy away from the pain, the ugliness, or the tragedy, but to mine passing moments of humor and irony when I found them. Hopefully, I’ve done that.

First Watch (banner)

What’s next for you going forward in the next couple of years?

I have no idea! Well, that’s not entirely true. I have truckloads of ideas, but I’m so deep into copy edits for book two and trying to finish a first draft of book three that exactly what my next work might be remains just outside the bounds of my present reckoning. Hopefully, readers will respond well enough to books two and three that there’ll be a demand for more Fifth Ward stories–which I’d be happy to provide! But even if the Fifth Ward continues, I’d like to take some side trips, too, just to keep my imagination fresh and well-tended. I’m a huge horror fan, and I actually set out to be a horror writer, when I was young, so I’d love to explore a few of the horror-based or more darkly fantastic ideas I have percolating. We’ll just have to see what my readership and my publisher want from me!

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One Comment

  1. David R says:

    Loved the first 2 books, can’t wait for book 3. And a super nice guy to boor

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